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The deserts of the American southwest have long been the discussion of lost mines and buried treasures. For hundreds of years, man has scoured the desert floor searching for any signs of the countless tales of lost riches. Some have claimed to have found the elusive treasures but only to be lost again, while others grew old or died trying. None the less, the legends live on as they are passed down from generation to generation. Maybe you will be the lucky one...

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The Lost Treasure of San Felipe
By Joyce Schelling

April 1998 - Volume 8 - Number 12
Copyright ©1998 Olde San Diego Gazette

The lure of gold and buried treasure gives rise to intriguing legends about the fierce Anza-Borrego Desert and has fired the hearts of adventurers from Pegleg Pete to modern-day treasure hunters.

One of the more fascinating legends concerns the lost treasure of the San Felipe massacre, treasure now reputed to be buried in the Anza-Borrego region. The tale, so the story goes, was originally told to a white man by an Indian with first-hand information. When the man couldn't find the treasure himself, he passed it on. The story then took on a life of it's own, as legends will, and was eventually published, enlarging its mystique. However, this is one legend that seems firmly based in fact.

This is how the story goes: Back in 1812 a band of renegade Spaniards roved from Santa Barbara into Mexico, plundering whatever of value they came across, including priceless gold and silver relics from the churches along the way. The treasure they pillaged was said to fill more than 10 ox-drawn carts.

Though the renegades apparently had good taste in treasure, they were sorely lacking in social graces or even the most rudimentary understanding of what makes people tick. They probably could have gotten away with robbing churches and villages, but they had the bad judgment to make off with a batch of the young Indian maidens they encountered along they way. The indian warriors of the village, who had been off on a hunting expedition when the abduction occurred, were understandably enraged. They stealthily followed the renegades, an accomplishment that wouldn't have overly taxed their tracking skills, since the treasure-laden carts left a trail of deep furrows all along their path.

The Indian warriors eventually closed in for the kill at the junctions of San Felipe Creek and Carrizo Wash, and at dawn they attacked. In the raging battle that followed, the Spaniards were seen trying to bury their treasure. All of the Spaniards were eventually killed. Three of them escaped the battlefield, but were relentlessly tracked down and disposed of near Indian Wells. And this is where the plot thickens. One version of the story says that the Indians burned the carts, buried the bodies and left the treasure as a memorial to the evil of the white man.

Another claims the treasure was moved to an area about 16 miles away, where it remained intact for almost 100 years. Then, in 1908 a group of men of Spanish descent came looking for it, but left empty-handed. The chief of the Indians ordered the treasure to be moved and picked eight of his strongest and most trusted braves for the job. Reputedly three-forths of the treasure was in gold bars. It is said that it took six days for the braves to move it to a safer location and that each brave made 24 trips. The last brave who claimed to have been involved in moving the treasure died in 1965, but neither he nor anyone else seems to have divulged the exact location of its resting place. Which, of course, is the mysterious stuff that legends are made of. This legend, however, has gained considerable credence through the discoveries of some of the intrepid treasure hunters of the desert. Notable among them was the late George Mroczkowski of San Diego, a fine man and avid historian who had been interested in the De Anza Trail for many years. Mroczkowski spent countless hours researching historic records, talking with old-timers who knew the tales of the trail, and searching many of the old campsites with a metal detector for relics of the past buried under the desert's shifting sands.

In 1970 he ran across an article about an unusual treasure along the De Anza Trail. Intrigued, Mroczkowski and two friends made an exploratory trip in the area, but were halted by a ferocious sandstorm that forced them to abandon their project. Returning some weeks later, he met with success. He found a small brass icon holder bordered in deep red garnets. It was later dated as coming from the late 1500s or early 1600s. Research disclosed that the garnets came from a particular region in the boot of Italy. Later, George met a man named Windy Morton who had found a small cross about a mile away that was ornamented with identical garnets.

Among other relics Mroczkowski found on that trip was a crucifix made of olive wood with a figure of Christ and a skull and crossbones done in metal. The skull and crossbones indicate that the figure was created before 1834. They were a symbol of the old church, signifying "Christ above death." After 1834 the skull and crossbones no longer appeared on the crucifix.

Mroczkowski made numerous other finds. On one trip accompanied by some of the staff of Treasure Magazine, he uncovered a Spanish short sword, deemed by an expert as priceless. Additional discoveries included brass candlestick holders, coins from Spain, China and Japan, portions of a horse's metal bridle, a priceless Moorish sword hilt and many other pieces.

To this date, though many adventurous souls have searched the desert and found artifacts of varying degrees of worth, there is still no solid evidence of the whereabouts of a cache of enormous treasure. The Treasure of the San Felipe Massacre remains a tantalizing mystery.

--Joyce Schelling